One Woman Out of Nine, Starting Again At the Finish Line

By Laurie Snow Turner
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 23, 2007

I remember sitting in the tearoom of the Ritz-Carlton in Crystal City with eight friends a few years ago and thinking that, if the statistics are correct, one of us will be given a diagnosis of breast cancer at some point in our lives. Never did I think it would be me.

One morning last May, I woke up and noticed a pea-size drop of blood over my left breast. My mind went back to that tearoom but I quickly dismissed any thought of cancer. Surely this was something else -- a scratch, a bug bite. Still, I went to my doctor that day. She noticed nothing unusual but referred me for a mammogram.

At the radiology office, I was ushered into a waiting room full of women in pink hospital gowns. Pink. It used to be one of my favorite colors. Now it feels like a guest who has overstayed her welcome.

The radiologist saw nothing suspicious. Still, because of the blood, she said they probably would want to do further tests, and asked me to wait.

One of the assistants announced that one of the other women could get dressed and go home. "You mean everything is okay?" she asked. The assistant gave a curt yes and the woman walked exuberantly back to her dressing room. Then, as if suddenly realizing others may not receive the same good news, she tempered her reaction.

Finally, the assistant called my name. The doctor needed to see me.

On an ultrasound the radiologist found a small tumor called a papilloma. They are very common, he said, and 90 percent of them are benign, but my breast surgeon later said she would biopsy the tissue to be sure.

A couple of weeks later, on a Tuesday, I had the biopsy. That Sunday, the surgeon called. Surgeons don't call on Sunday afternoons with good news. I tried to write down everything she was saying, but all I could think was, "I have breast cancer."

I was in my bedroom and could hear my teenage daughters downstairs with their friends. One was making cookies and squealing because she didn't want to burn herself pulling the cookie sheet out of the oven. The other was working on the computer and writing out a list for the care and keeping of hermit crabs. Normal life was swirling around me, but suddenly nothing about my life was normal.

I needed to tell someone this news, but I surely couldn't tell my kids right then. My husband was in meetings at church. I couldn't tell my mother because I couldn't bear to add one more problem to her long list. I called my best friend and shocked myself by saying the words: "I have breast cancer."

I had a lumpectomy and a test to determine whether the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. It had. I would need chemotherapy. As I sat in the hospital recovery room bandaged and sore from surgery, the reality of this news hit me hard. My hope had been that this would be the end of my cancer experience. Right then I knew I was not getting out of this quickly or easily. I had to face the truth -- I really am a cancer patient. For the first time, I cried and faced the reality of my new life as a woman with breast cancer.

At my follow-up appointment with the breast surgeon, I learned that the cancer had spread into the surrounding tissue and I needed a mastectomy. Now I was facing another major surgery and the treatment I dreaded most -- chemotherapy. As crazy as it sounds, I was more afraid of the chemotherapy and losing my hair than I was of losing a breast. I could fake the breast, but I thought there was no disguising that cancer look that comes from being bald and having no eyebrows or eyelashes.

I left the doctor's office with a large binder, feeling as though I was being welcomed into the world of cancer. I did not want to be in this world and was offended that someone assumed I would be a resident there. In my mind, I was still just making a brief stop on the way back to my own happy, comfortable world. The more I became immersed in the world of cancer, however, the more I knew that it's more than just a rest stop.

Early last fall, recovering from the mastectomy, I was to start chemotherapy in a matter of days. I spent the week checking things off a most unpleasant to-do list. I bought new makeup to avoid any chance of bacteria threatening my already suppressed immune system, lined up my makeup brushes to wash them all thoroughly. I bought two wigs and a bag full of hats and scarves. I went to the drugstore and bought medicines and syringes.

In terms of all the paraphernalia needed to start chemotherapy, I was ready. In terms of the emotional and physical toll, I was wholly unprepared. I was convinced the worst part would be watching my hair fall out and then looking in the mirror at my new self as a true-to-life breast cancer patient, solidly residing in the world I shunned.

During the long months of chemo I motored through life in a deep, dark fog. The mental image that propelled me forward was of a large group of friends and family cheering me on, praying for me and helping me get to the finish line at the Race for the Cure. When that day finally came, I actually crossed that line in my pink survivor shirt.

A year ago, I never thought I would be the unlucky one who got cancer. Now I am one of the lucky ones who survived.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company